Just after 3:30 A.M. EST this morning—and a half-hour past noon on Mars—NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter became the first aircraft to fly on another world. Hovering at an altitude of three meters for some 30 seconds, the solar-powered aircraft’s first flight was more of a modest hop than a giant leap. But it opened the way for up to four more aerial forays in coming weeks—and a new era of airborne interplanetary exploration.
Captured by Ingenuity—as well as its “mothership,” the Perseverance rover—the first flight’s stunning images will undoubtedly make their way into history books. But the event’s most poignant pictures emerged right here on Earth, taken in an austere room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. There, the team behind Ingenuity had waited for more than three nail-biting hours for news of the helicopter’s success, which was delayed by the need for Perseverance to relay the flight’s data to a satellite orbiting overhead and then to Earth. Success was far from guaranteed: flying on Mars is no easy feat because the planet’s atmosphere is just one hundredth as dense as Earth’s, requiring Ingenuity’s blades to spin at more than 2,500 revolutions per minute.
Finally, at 6:46 A.M. EST, the confirmation came. “Altimeter data confirms that Ingenuity has performed its first flight—the first powered flight of a powered aircraft on another planet,” announced Håvard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot, as he monitored the incoming telemetry.
After years of hard work on the high-risk project, for a few brief moments the team members allowed their elation to take over.
Less than five minutes later, while watching Perseverance’s video of the hovering craft, Ingenuity’s project manager MiMi Aung declared the test a “success” and ceremoniously ripped up printouts of contingency procedures. “We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet!” Aung said. For now she encouraged her team to enjoy the celebration. But “after that, let’s get back to work—and more flights!” she said.